How to Change Culture

There are many models for discussing Culture change that are useful in opening the conversation with leadership. Models I have found useful include:

  • The Schneider Model
  • Frederic Laloux model based upon spiral dynamics
  • The Sahota model

These models give us the ability to see where things are now and where we are focusing our efforts, although some have their flaws.

What we need is a step by step approach for changing the culture that works every time.

One successful approach is the Leadership -> Structure -> Culture model that I developed last year. This model is based upon my own experience and learning from the people who have spoken/taught at AWA over the last few years.

The model has multiple levels of explanation and I cover this in detail in our training courses. In this article, I will cover the necessary steps to put this into practice and show you the model as a set of diagrams.

The model is a step by step approach that changes the dynamics of the reinforcing loop that holds the status quo in place. The reinforcing loop can be shown to be:

Reinforcing Loop

Leadership hold the power to change the structure. They will only change structure based on their own beliefs about the problems they face and the solutions that seem practical and reasonable.

Structure holds Culture in place. (See Larman’s Laws). Without a change in structure, there is little hope of culture change where the numbers of people are greater than about 80.

Culture cannot be changed directly. Culture as described by Schneider, is ‘the way we do things around here’. In this article we are discussing changing the way we do things because that is the role of the agile/organisational design coach.

Leadership are generally under pressure. If the leadership are not under pressure, there will be no burning desire for change and no urgency. Change is unlikely if leadership are not under pressure.

This model assumes there is pressure on leadership to succeed.

Pressure on Leadership from Market Forces & Internal Politics

In our training, we run exercises on what this pressure is in modern organisations. To summarise at a very high level, this pressure comes from Market Forces and Internal Politics.

Step 1 – Listen to leadership

No one cares about Agile. What leaders care about are results. Without being able to listen to leadership we can’t hear what their problems are. We cover deep listening skills on most of the training courses we run at AWA, specifically on our Agile Team Coach. We cover how to engage and communicate with leadership to help them derive their real challenges on both the Enterprise Agile Coach Bootcamp.

Once we have defined the real business challenges, we can now help to optimise the organisation to solve those problems. You do not define these challenges, leadership do. We are not doing Agile for Agile sake, but instead making organisations more effective by using some of the elements from Agile/Lean etc.


Step 2 – Optimise the whole

Using the real business challenges identified in Step 1, we optimise the structural elements of the organisation to generate the right results.

In product or service organisations this is done via the product teams. We cover this in our Product class and the Enterprise Agility Masterclass.

There are multiple techniques for structural reform such as Community of Practices, Self-organising teams, and large-scale facilitation techniques. It doesn’t have to be a dissolving of the formal hierarchy.

Structural change can be done incrementally as ‘safe to learn’ experiments following a Lean StartUp or Action Research approach. We teach these techniques on the Coaching for Enterprise Agility class.

Step 3 – Measure primary and output focused metrics

Each change we make should improve our ability to deal with the real business challenges identified in step 1. If it doesn’t, or our ability is impeded, it didn’t work, and we need to try something else.

We won’t know if it worked or not unless we can measure it. Measuring something is a statement of intent.

Measuring how Agile we are, or how many teams have ‘gone agile’, or what practices we are doing, or how well we are doing those practices, has totally missed the point! Remember, as leaders, we don’t care about Agile, we care about business results. We don’t measure proxy variables.

Step 4 – Include everyone

This might sound like a top-down approach. This is true. But it is not the whole picture. Top-down approaches won’t work on their own. Everyone MUST be included to shape and take ownership of their own destiny.


A purely top-down approach will cause resistance and fail. You can see the different types of agile adoption approach in my article of 2015.

What we do want is active participation and self-organisation in solving real business problems. To include everyone, we need facilitation techniques that allow everyone involved in the structure or process, to participate in its co-creation.

In the Enterprise Agile Coach Bootcamp., we experience how this works and how to create ownership of the problem, the solution, and business results. We use techniques like modified versions of Open Space, Future Search, and World Café for large facilitation, and techniques like ADKAR and Professional Coaching to help individuals with their own journey of seeing their work and organisation in a different way and to bring alignment.

Step 5 – Accountability

Accountability can only happen with ownership (see step 4). Accountability is done through reinforcement by the celebration of real business results. We know what these are because we are actively measuring them in step 3.

Everyone is rewarded by results. This doesn’t have to be cash. There are multiple possibilities for rewarding.

Other elements of culture change

Not included in the steps are elements which are built into the overall approach. For completeness I mention them here:

  • Start with where we are now
  • The mindset of experimentation and continuous incremental improvement
  • Professional Coaching to bring an individual’s behaviour in line with their own goals
  • Constructivism and using story-telling to change shared reality and mind-sets
  • Positive manifestation of solutions using things like Appreciative Enquiry
  • Multiple stakeholder balance
  • This process is incremental and repetitive. It never ends. Small management improvement cycles tuned in to real business problems and solutions with everyone engaged.

Putting it all together

Organisational change takes years. However, it doesn’t take long to make a meaningful impactful change that improves our ability to get real business results.

If you want to learn more about this approach, for AWA to help your organisation, or to be able to use them yourself, please get in touch or come along to our training courses.

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